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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Is There a Connection Between Naming and Dominion?

Yesterday, Suzanne asked the question, "If, as some argue, naming the animals indicates dominion over them, and Adam names Eve, then does he have dominion over her?" In the comments on that post, several people mentioned examples of naming which seem to undermine the notion that the act of naming always implies dominion.

What then is the significance of the act of naming in the Bible? Is there any? Is there some sense of "right" or "authority" implicit in the act of naming? Or is the focus in such descriptions on the character of the person or thing named?

If we look carefully at the creation narrative, we see in Genesis 1 that God names each aspect of his creation. God's dominion over his creation is never in question in this passage, and in no sense can it be said to be "established" through the act of naming. Rather, we see God looking at his creation, evaluating its worth, and identifying the unique character of each individual aspect. If there is any "right" or "authority" which can be attached to these acts of naming, it is the right of a creator to name his creation. Just as an artist has the prerogative to give his masterpiece a title, so it is God's prerogative to name the various aspects of his creation.

At the end of Genesis chapter 1, God creates humanity and gives "them" (male and female) the "creation mandate" to fill the earth, subdue it, and rule over it. Thus, dominion is certainly a theme of the creation narrative, but it is one which is established through an explicit command rather than being merely implicit in some human act.

In Genesis chapter 2, the narrative backs up and focuses on the creation of humanity in more detail. Adam is created first and placed in the garden to "work/serve" (‏עבד) it and to "keep/guard" (‏שׁמר) it. In this way, God places Adam in a position of authority over creation, yet that authority comes with the responsibility to care for and protect the creation he has been given dominion over.

Next God provides for Adam's need for sustenance by giving him every tree for food, except for the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil." In this way, God showers Adam with abundant provision while nevertheless making it clear that he does not have unlimited authority over creation.

After identifying Adam's need for companionship, God brings the animals to the man to "see what he would call them." Like an artist putting his works on display, God encourages Adam to evaluate and identify the unique character of each of his fellow "living beings." That's quite an honor in itself, but amazingly, the Bible also says, "whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name." Imagine an artist setting up an exhibit of all his works, then inviting an art critic to evaluate his work and come up with the title for each painting. Whatever titles the critic comes up with, the artist is content to let stand. That is what God does for Adam when he allows Adam to name all the creatures.

In this way, Adam's act of naming the creatures is an example of the extent to which God has "passed the mantle" of authority over creation to Adam. The picture is one of a master craftsman training an apprentice to carry on and complete his work. God gets Adam involved in creation, not as a spectator, but as a junior craftsman, a caretaker-in-training, a steward, and a vice-regent.

Should we conclude from this that anything Adam names he has authority over? Not at all. Adam's act of naming in Genesis 2 is not an exercise of dominion, but a recognition of the individual character of each creature named. When Hagar names God in Genesis 16:13, she displays this same ability to recognize the unique character of the person named, but it is clear that she has no authority over the God she has named. Likewise, the patriarchs named all kinds of places in Canaan which they did not yet possess or have any authority over. Our propensity to name things shows that we are "like God" in our ability to evaluate, identify, and recognize similarity and difference. It does not, in itself, imply authority.

The only connection between naming and "dominion" in Genesis 2 is that Adam's naming of the creatures is one of a number of ways that God grooms Adam for a position of authority and responsibility over creation. If complementarians and egalitarians are to debate the significance of this connection for questions of gender, they must focus on whether it is significant that Adam is given the opportunity to name the creatures before Eve is created. Does this fact imply that God has passed authority over creation to Adam as male or to Adam as human (and therefore also to Eve)? If Adam is given such authority before Eve is "taken out of" him, does that mean that she is excluded from that authority or that she participates in it?

Whatever our answers to those questions, we need to understand that all such questions are peripheral to the main points of the creation narrative, which are that God is the author of creation, that humanity has been called to reflect God's image by reigning over and caring for creation, and that we can only accomplish that creation mandate as male and female. The genius of the naming episode in Genesis 2 is that it serves to establish and reinforce all three of those points.

2 Comments:

At Sat Aug 25, 09:49:00 PM, Blogger martin shields said...

David,

I'm not convinced that Gen 2 allows us to impute even the level of authority to the act of naming that you suggest. You wrote:

Adam's act of naming the creatures is an example of the extent to which God has "passed the mantle" of authority over creation to Adam. The picture is one of a master craftsman training an apprentice to carry on and complete his work. God gets Adam involved in creation, not as a spectator, but as a junior craftsman, a caretaker-in-training, a steward, and a vice-regent.

This scene in Gen 2:18-24 opens with the identification of a problem: it is not good for the man to be alone. God then states his solution to the problem: to provide a "helper" to complement him. The idea that this is set up to allow the man to express his dominion over the animals detracts from the plot. OTOH, if naming is an expression of man's recognition of the character and nature of the animals, then naming becomes the means by which the search for the "helper" is undertaken. The man examines each of the animals presented to him and assesses its worth as a companion. None fulfil the requirements and man remains alone at the end of the naming (and the text highlights this fact in v. 20b: the naming was all about searching for a companion, about solving the problem identified in verse 18). In other words, the text says nothing about dominion or authority here, but it explicitly says something about searching and looking for a companion.

It is worthwhile reading George Ramsey's article "Is Name-Giving an Act of Dominion in Genesis 2-3 and Elsewhere?" CBQ 50.1 (Jan. 1988) 24-35. While it is true that many writers assert that name-giving is an expression of authority by the namer over the person or thing being named, very few offer any sort of evidence that this is true. I think it is true, but only sometimes, and I do not think it is implicit to the act of naming. As I've written in my study quoted elsewhere by Suzanne, "it is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of most scholars' exegesis of this passage that they simply assume that name giving conveys this notion [i.e. that name-giving is an expression of authority]" and then "... the significance of naming in the Old Testament should be determined not by the assumption that naming universally conveys the notion of authority, but rather by close analysis of the function of the naming event in its context."

 
At Sun Aug 26, 01:38:00 PM, Blogger David Lang said...

Martin,

Perhaps I'm trying to make too fine a distinction, but I don't believe I've imputed any "level of authority to the act of naming" per se. Rather, I'm suggesting that Genesis 2 generally displays a pattern of God equipping humanity to fulfill the creation mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. The naming episode and the giving of Eve take place in that broader context.

As you've explained, the narrower context of Adam's naming of the creatures is his search for a suitable companion. By presenting Adam with every creature and having him "recognize" its "character and nature," God teaches Adam to yearn for the suitable companion which God has already resolved to give him.

Yet in the process, God lets the names Adam gives to each creature stand: "whatever he called [it], that was its name." Thus, Adam becomes an active participant in the definition and evaluation of creation, giving names to each creature just as God had done in Genesis 1. Adam is not presented as some kind of naive child, but as one who is "like God" in his interations with creation.

I see this not as "detracting from the plot," but as reinforcing and enhancing it. God could simply have given Eve to Adam and said, "This is what you need." But God cultivates in Adam an appreciation of every creature, and a desire for the one creature it is "not good" for him to be without.

I absolutely agree with your statement that "the significance of naming in the Old Testament should be determined not by the assumption that naming universally conveys the notion of authority, but rather by close analysis of the function of the naming event in its context." My concern is that when rebutting the "naming equals authority" idea, we not isolate the naming episode and the giving of Eve from their surrounding context. Otherwise, we chop a beautifully interwoven narrative into a series of disconnected episodes.

 

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